Public, private sides of former Sen. Byrd remembered

By Joe Beck

WINCHESTER — They don’t make U.S. senators like Harry F. Byrd Jr. anymore, much to the regret of former colleagues and current politicians who attended his funeral Saturday at Christ Episcopal Church in Winchester.

A light rain fell outside as about 200 mourners packed the pews for the 40-minute funeral service. Family and friends came to honor Byrd for his personal qualities and his career as a member of a family that dominated Virginia government and politics for the majority of his 98 years.

Byrd was appointed to the U.S. Senate in 1965 after his father, Harry Byrd Sr., resigned for health reasons.

Byrd’s death Tuesday stirred memories of political battles over spending on government social programs and federal efforts to end racial segregation, both of which he deeply opposed.

Byrd waded into some of the bitterest political controversies of his era, first as a state senator from 1948 to 1965 and then as a U.S. senator from 1965 to 1982. He was one of the leaders of the effort to close Virginia public schools as part of the “massive resistance” campaign to a U.S. Supreme Court decision outlawing racially segregated schools.

Former U.S. Sen. John Danforth, a Republican from Missouri, said Byrd worried about the direction of the country, especially the failure to balance the federal budget. But Byrd also forged a reputation for cheerfulness, energy and civility, traits that are sorely lacking amid the bombastic speeches of today’s Senate, Danforth said.

“Harry Byrd was never obstructionist,” Danforth told the audience. “It was never my way or the highway. He said his piece and that was it.”

Danforth, who was a senator from 1975 to 1994 and is also an ordained minister, led the service. His homily included a plea for current senators to consider the example set by some of those who served with Danforth, practitioners of a less confrontational style of politics that many regret may be gone forever from Congress.

“I’m sure many people asked Harry if politics has changed,” Danforth said. “It certainly seems that way. Remember Pat Moynihan, Russell Long and Bob Dole, who, like Harry, gave the place joy and spirit. Now it all seems so joyless, so deadening.”

Danforth said in an interview afterward that Byrd asked him several years ago to officiate at his funeral. Danforth, who has also officiated at the funerals of President Reagan and several other senators, quickly accepted.

“Who says ‘no’ to Harry Byrd?” Danforth quipped.

Gov. Bob McDonnell, six other former governors and former and current senators from Virginia attended the funeral. They included Democrats Mark Warner, Tim Kaine, Chuck Robb and Republican George Allen. They were joined by former Sen. Steven Symms, a Republican from Idaho.

In an interview afterward, Symms joined Danforth in ruing the bitter partisanship that has cropped up in the Senate since the time they served with Byrd.

“That was when we used to pass those bills even if we didn’t like them,” Symms said.

Several of Byrd’s former staff members also attended and spoke in interviews. Phil Reberger, a chief of staff, remembered Byrd and his father as similar in their civility and respect for the Senate as an institution.

Reberger wore what he described as an “ancient” Byrd campaign button on his suit lapel.

The Senate was changing by the time Harry Byrd Jr. arrived in 1965, Reberger said. The elder Byrd had thrived under the seniority system that awarded powerful committee memberships based on a senator’s length of service.

His son had to contend with a new system in which the Senate majority leader controlled committee appointments, which worked against Byrd when he bolted from the Democratic Party to become an independent in 1970, Reberger said.

“Sen. Byrd would never compromise to get preferable assignments from the majority,” Reberger said.

Christopher Lehman, a staff defense specialist, remembered his former boss as “a wonderful guy,” gentle and kind toward everyone he met.

Danforth spoke in his homily of the private Harry Byrd, whose large family will remember him first and foremost as the man they called “pop.”

“The greatest legacy one can leave is one of family,” Danforth said. “The most esteemed title is not senator, but pop.”

Nine of Byrd’s grandchildren bore his coffin from the church.

The gravesite service was a reminder of Byrd’s stint as a lieutenant commander in the U.S. Naval Reserve during World War II. He was buried with full military honors, including a seven-gun salute. Eight sailors from the Naval District Washington bore the flag-draped coffin the last few steps to the gravesite.

The service concluded with the sailors taking the flag from the coffin and folding it painstakingly. They presented it to Byrd’s son and Winchester Star publisher Thomas F. Byrd, who was seated in the front row near the coffin.

Contact staff writer Joe Beck at 540-465-5137 ext. 142, or jbeck@nvdaily.com